Albuquerque’s history dates back 12,000 years when the first American Indians settled in the area. Ancient Puebloan Indians (Anasazi) were living in the area between 1000 and 1300, planting corn, be, ns and squash and constructing adobe and brick pit homes along the banks of the Rio Grande. They also established several communities throughout northeastern New Mexico, connecting them with sophisticated roads.
Then, in 1540, Conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado came north from Mexico in search of the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola. Though Coronado left empty-handed, it didn’t stop even more Spanish settlers arriving in the area, looking for the elusive gold. The Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 discouraged further settlement until Spanish General Don Diego de Vargas arrived in 1692. By the end of the 17th century, several trading posts were established just north of the present-day city.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the area that would one day become Albuquerque was called Bosque Grande de San Francisco Xavier. In 1706, the ambitious provisional governor of the territory, Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdez, petitioned the Spanish government for permission to establish the bosque as a formal villa and call it Albuquerque, after Viceroy Francisco Fernandez de la Cueva, the Duke of Albuquerque. Later the spelling was changed because some influential person couldn’t pronounce the “R” in Albuquerque. The city is still nicknamed “Duke City.”
During much of the 18th and 19th century, Albuquerque was little more than a dusty trading center along the El Camino Real, the trail linking Mexico and Santa Fe. Close-knit families of Spanish descent accounted for most of the population living around the central plaza, in what is now Old Town.
This began to change when Josiah Gregg, a frontiersman, and trailblazer established the Old Fort Smith Wagon Road between Arkansas and Santa Fe in 1839. For ten years, people cared little about the trail until the California Gold Rush of 1849, when it became heavily traveled by those pioneers seeking their fortunes in the far west.
In 1846, the United States claimed the territory when General Stephen Kearny established an army post. During the Civil War, Confederate troops briefly occupied Albuquerque and after the war was over, white merchants and tradesmen began to arrive in numbers.
When the railroad steamed through in 1880, the city changed drastically, bringing in hundreds of white settlers and changing the demographics and architecture of the city. Numerous new businesses were established around the new railroad and the city began to grow. By 1885, Albuquerque was incorporated.
In 1889, the University of New Mexico was founded in Albuquerque, bringing with it, not only knowledge but also new and different cultures to the community.
Growth continued steadily into the 20th century and saw another spurt when Route 66 brought a steady stream of traffic right through the city. Before the 1930s, Albuquerque’s Main Street, now called Central Avenue, consisted of a few motor courts, gas stations, campgrounds, and cafes. In no time at all new motels, restaurants and services, complete with neon signs, began to compete for the attention of Mother Road travelers. A cafe shaped like an iceberg opened for business on the present site of the Lobo Theatre; a sombrero-shaped restaurant offered Mexican food, and the Aztec Lodge and De Anza Motor Lodge presented pueblo-inspired accommodations.
When the realignment of Route 66 was completed in 1937, there were more motels on Central Avenue than had been built in the previous 10 to 12 years on the other alignment. By 1955, there were more than 100 motels on Albuquerque’s Central Avenue and in the summer, it was hard to find an open room.
The Aztec Motel was the oldest surviving Route 66 motel in New Mexico up until 2011. Beginning as the Aztec Auto Court in 1933, it was built four years before Central Avenue became Route 66. An example of the Southwest Vernacular style, it was the first of what would eventually be dozens of auto courts lining Central Avenue. The motel changed hands a number of times over the years. When Interstate 40 bypassed Central Avenue, the booming business of the auto court faltered dramatically, and the motel fell into disrepair and disrepute becoming a haven for prostitutes and drug dealers.
In 1991, however, a new owner purchased the Aztec. With patience, hard work, and creativity, the new proprietor brought the motel back to working condition as a short- and long-term-stay motel. The old auto court continued to serve Route 66 travelers for 20 years; but, unfortunately, due to its condition and costs of renovation, it was razed in 2011.
The El Vado Motel was built in 1937 by a former Franciscan Hotel manager in downtown Albuquerque. This enclosed motor court, built of adobe in the Pueblo Revival style, is considered the purest surviving Route 66 motel in the city. Previous owners turned down some handsome offers for the motel’s neon Indian through the years.
The motel was sold in 2005 to a developer who planned to raze the old hotel to build townhouses. However, Route 66 enthusiasts and historic preservationists lobbied to save the old auto court. The city of Albuquerque then stepped in and saved the El Vado. Plans were made to refurbish the site in a mixed-use development that includes a community food court, an amphitheater, a boutique motel, and a small events center. The “new” El Vado celebrated its grand opening in July 2018.
In 1959, Albuquerque’s vintage Route 66 suffered a blow when I-40 plowed through the city, circumventing the narrow road of Route 66. Though many of the Route 66-era roadside architecture was lost with the advent of the interstate, Albuquerque still provides a number of Mother Road icons as well as a wealth of historical sites for the nostalgic traveler.
A trip down Central Avenue at night is a trip back through time, as you view the numerous neon lights sparkling along Route 66. You can also still see many Route 66 iconic motels such as the De Anza Motel, the Tewa Motel, the Luna Lodge, and the Town Lodge Motel. Check out Nob Hill, built in 1936-47, and the Lobo Theater, and Lobo Pharmacy & Bookstore (originally Barber’s El Rancho Market), both built in the 1930s.
Downtown, there are several buildings that were highlights in the 1940s and 50s era, including the Sunshine Building (built in 1923-24), the First National Bank Building (1922), the Rosenwald Building (1910), and the KiMo Theater (1927). Other sites west of Old Town include Lindy’s Restaurant (1929), Maisel’s (circa 1940), and the El Vado Motel (1937).
While in Albuquerque, you must also see Old Town, a preserved Spanish plaza, take a scenic train ride, and visit the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in order to get the entire Albuquerque experience.
When traveling Route 66 westward from Albuquerque, there are two alignments. The pre-1937 alignment, though out of the way, is most interesting as it passes through a number of ghost towns with numerous peeks at the long ago past. To drive the older alignment, you will leave Albuquerque, heading south on NM 314 just after crossing the Rio Grande River, then turn west on NM6 at Los Lunas. The post-1937 alignment leaves the city on Central Avenue, crosses the Rio Grande River and climbs Nine-Mile Hill to join I-40. The two alignments converge again near the village of Mesita.